In the last scene of Naya Daur (1957), the tongawalla Shankar (played by the late Dilip Kumar) wins the race of a lifetime against Kundan (played by Jeevan) and his motorbus. Kundan, who has been championing the use of machines since his return from the big city, warns that the village will be decimated if Shankar and the other villagers don’t embrace mechanisation. Shankar maintains that it’s the co-existence of man and machine that will change the fortunes of not just this village but the whole country. This BR Chopra film hit theatres a year after the Second Five Year Plan (1956-61), that called for rapid industrialisation across the country. With songs like 'Ye Desh Hain Veer Jawano Ka' and 'Saathi Haath Badhana', Naya Daur has its nationalistic core firmly in place while examining the implications of Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernisation policy on rural India.
Born in pre-partition India, Dilip Kumar’s brush with politics started much before stardom came knocking. Both his father Ghulam Sarwar Khan and grandfather Haji Mohammed Khan belonged to the Congress in the North West Frontier Province. A year before he became a movie star, Kumar, who was still Yusuf Khan then, spent a night in Yerwada jail in Pune, fasting with Mahatma Gandhi’s followers. He had been arrested for making an anti-British speech at the Army club where he worked. In his autobiography Dilip Kumar – The Substance and the Shadow, he wrote, “I exchanged pleasantries with my fellow inmates and they told me that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was in one of the cells and they were all on a hunger strike along with him. I don’t know why but I too felt that I should fast with them. So, I refused the food that was brought for me on an unclean plate.” He was released the next morning.
The actor made his film debut with Bombay Talkies’ Jwar Bhata in 1944 but the film tanked at the box office. Three years later, as India was on the cusp of Independence, Jugnu, co-starring Noor Jahan, released. The film went to become the highest grossing Hindi film of 1947. Through the 50s and 60s as Kumar, along with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, ruled the Hindi film industry, India was changing. The afterglow of independence soon made way for a call for modernisation and self-sufficiency, and there were fears that large sections of the country were being neglected.
For Dilip Kumar, political was personal so it’s not surprising that it often seeped into his professional life. In the 60 odd films he made over five decades, politics was often peppered in the narrative.
While some of these films deeply mirrored what the country was going through politically, others rippled the surface here and there, giving one transitory glimpses into those lives and times.
Before Naya Daur came Footpath (1953), one of the earliest films on the evils of corruption in public life. In this social noir directed by Zia Sarhadi, Kumar played an idealistic journalist who turns to black-marketing in desperation. Earlier this year, a clip from the film’s climax started doing the rounds of social media as the country reeled under the second wave of the pandemic. As he is surrendering in the police station, Nashu (played by Kumar) confesses to selling rations for profit and when disease took over the city, he hoarded medicine and increased prices. Though the film is better known for the Talat Mahmood classic 'Shaam-e-gham Ki Kasam' and rarely counted among Kumar’s best, the film addresses the still-relevant subject of wealth distribution in the country. Even the pulpy Gunga Jamna (1961), which Kumar wrote and produced, explored the themes of rural poverty and feudal structure that subjugate the poor.
If Naya Daur was optimistic about the politics of the day and Footpath critical of those left behind, Leader (1964), also written by Kumar, signalled disillusionment. Directed by Ram Mukherjee, Leader was one of the earliest films to revolve around an election. Kumar played a law student who also moonlights as the editor of a tabloid, and is accused of murdering a politician as the country goes into a general election. The film’s timing — it came close on the heels of the India-China war of 1962 and just two months before Nehru passed away — is what made the film even more interesting. After almost a decade and a half when a young nation was finding her feet and Nehruvian idealism was unquestioned, cynicism was beginning to creep in and Leader reflected that. It also set a template of how desi pop culture, especially films, would portray politicians in the decades to come.
Kumar’s career is very closely linked to the period of Nehru’s Prime Ministership. A little more than half of his films released during this period.
In his book Nehru’s Hero: Dilip Kumar In The Life Of India, Lord Meghnad Desai wrote, “As the 1950s saw India change from a sceptical, beaten nation to a confident player on the world stage, and then again into a defeated one by the time of the India-China war, Dilip Kumar mirrored the facets of these transformations. Footpath, Naya Daur, Ganga Jamuna and Leader show this movement from darkness to sunshine and then the beginning of a new disappointment as the 1960s arrive.” Off-screen, Kumar never shied from revealing his fondness for Nehru or the Congress party, even campaigning for its candidates during elections.
The 70s marked a considerable slow-down in Kumar’s career but Tapan Sinha’s searing Bengali film Sagina Mahato (1970) is another gem in his filmography. Based on a story by Gour Kishore Ghosh, the period film was a love story with the background of labour movement in the tea estates of Darjeeling. Kumar’s outing as a factory labourer who rises up against the autocracy of British rulers won him praise and the film won the National Award for Best Bengali Film as well as the Best Picture Award at the International Film Festival at Moscow. The film’s Hindi version, Sagina, that released three years later wasn’t as successful.
The 80s marked Kumar’s first foray into active politics when he was appointed the Sherriff of Bombay (now Mumbai), and his re-emergence on screen. Only this time he was the Angry Old Man – fighting the British imperialists (in Kranti, 1980); with unflinching values because ‘farz nibhane ki purani aadat ho gayi hai (in Shakti, 1982); who clashes against mill owners profiting off workers like him (Mazdoor, 1983); who fights the corrupt system, first with his words in a newspaper he starts and eventually with weapons (in Mashaal, 1984); and, who goes from reforming prisoners in a jail to bringing a vile villain to justice (in Karma, 1986).
Dilip Kumar won countless awards for his contribution to Indian cinema; but he was always more than just an actor. An influencer in the truest sense of the word, he was conferred with both Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan Awards during his lifetime. He was also controversially conferred the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s highest civilian honour by the Nawaz Sharif government. At the height of tensions in Kargil, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee roped in the celebrated actor to have a conversation with his Pakistani counterpart in the hope that his influence might work to bring back peace. That’s the stuff of legend. There was something pure about Dilip Kumar’s politics, something that’s rarely seen these days, far less so amongst those in the fray itself. Call it a generational thing or call it raw idealism, Dilip Kumar embodied everything that Nehruvian politics was all about — building a modern, secular India.